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Belle And Sebastian

+ {God Help The Girl}

While one can’t forget the fuss and bother made by pop pundits when they defied the odds to win a Brit Newcomer award in ’99 for their third album, “The Boy With The Arab Strap”, Scotland’s precious twee-popsters BELLE AND SEBASTIAN have railed against the tide to become an acquired taste among the alternative elite. Now eight albums into their reign atop the chamber-pop champions league, the faceless but efficacious B&S choose to keep the project at a distance from the baying media.
Formed January ’96 in Glasgow, by singer-songwriter and ex-choirboy/boxer/FELT-fan, Stuart Murdoch, along with bassist Stuart David, the pair recruited additional members Isobel Campbell (cello/vocals), Richard Colburn (drums), Stevie Jackson (guitar) and Chris Geddes (keyboards) in a local late-night café. Borrowing the group moniker from a popular 60s children’s book-cum-TV series, Belle et Sebastien, about a young French boy and his Pyrenees mountain dog, the sextet worked at Stow College with ex-ASSOCIATES musician-turned-teacher, Alan Rankine. This entrepreneurial business course guided Stuart and Co throughout the process, while the college’s in-house imprint, Electric Honey (responsible then for only singles), financed the group’s now rare, TIGERMILK (1996) {*8} LP. The record received sufficient airplay on national night-time radio to ensure cult status; limited to 1,000 vinyl-only copies, one can expect to pay up to £500 for a copy, although subsequent record label, Jeepster, duly issued it on CD.
Not since the days of NICK DRAKE had one heard the monotonic musings of a masterful singer-songwriter, and the assured Murdoch was inch-perfect to take up where he left off. `The State I Am In’, `I Could Be Dreaming’, `I Don’t Love Anyone’, `You’re Just A Baby’ and `My Wandering Days Are Over’, were arguably the pick of the pack, and it must be said, the sprite and bright accompaniment from the players (mariachi-style, et al), was endearing and effective throughout.
By the end of the year (and now with additional 7th member, Sarah Martin, on violin) B&S had unleashed their sophomore set, IF YOU’RE FEELING SINISTER (1996) {*9}, a record which sold its initial batch of 15,000 copies and gained many plaudits from end of the year critic polls. At times character-driven, at other times coffee-house continental and cinematic, servings such as `Seeing Other People’, `Like Dylan In The Movies’, `The Stars Of Track And Field’ etc, were wry and whimsical rather than sinister. One could draw a line between PAUL SIMON, COLIN BLUNSTONE or CLIFFORD T. WARD, but the maverick Murdoch had no doubt learned his trade from inside a London bedsit; he’d stayed down south while unsuccessfully searching out his idol, Lawrence Hayward (of the aforementioned FELT).
Instead of pursuing the album format, BELLE AND SEBASTIAN produced a triumvirate of minor hit singles via a series of highly desirable EPs: `Dog On Wheels’, `Lazy Line Painter Jane’ (with former THRUM larynx-basher, Monica Queen, in excellent form on the title track), culminating with their critically acclaimed Top 40 entry, `3.. 6.. 9 Seconds Of Light’. The fact that they’d scaled such giddy heights of indie stardom with only a minimum of promotion and a handful of gigs spoke volumes for the quality of their vintage, twee C-86-esque sound.
By late summer ‘98, with the addition of trumpeter Mick Cooke, expectations for a new album had reached fever pitch, critics unanimously hailing Top 20 breakthrough THE BOY WITH THE ARAB STRAP (1998) {*9} as one of the year’s finest; sadly, too late for esteemed Mercury Prize. Their accumulative trademark combination of fey vocals, killer hook-lines and avant-pop experimentalism resulted in some of B&S’s most infectious tracks to date. With the spirit of NICK DRAKE ghosting in and out of focus (especially on `Sleep The Clock Around’, `A Summer Wasting’ and the name-checking `Seymour Stein’), this troupe of Glaswegian-based revivalists succeeded in putting the 60s and 70s through an 80s filter, incredibly coming up with something quintessentially 90s. The uninitiated should head straight for the holy trinity of tracks opening side two wherein BELLE & SEBASTIAN do an “Arab Strap” so to speak, the “Bairn”-like narrative of `A Space Boy Dream’ complementing the BOLAN-esque stomp of the title track and sandwiching the brassy, BOO RADLEYS (but don’t let that put you off!)-style `Dirty Dream Number Two’.
Fans eager to get a glimpse of these elusive Scots shysters in the flesh had to keep their eyes peeled, as actual gigs were woefully few and far between. Extra-curricular activities, meanwhile, included a US “Sub Pop” 7″ from Stuart David’s spoken-word/electro outfit, LOOPER (with also his wife, Wee Karn and his brother, Ronnie Black). They would continue as a unit early in 1999, releasing a debut album for Jeepster, while Isobel’s side project, the GENTLE WAVES, also released a long-player on the same label.
In July that year and due to demand from everybody, bar possibly Pete Waterman and his Steps proteges (who were somewhat peeved about losing the recent Brit Newcomers award due to internet voting), BELLE & SEBASTIAN re-distributed their semi-quasi debut, “Tigermilk”; this time it hit the UK Top 20.
After a two-year recording gap, B&S confidently returned with their fourth studio outing, the sublime, if not translucent, FOLD YOUR HANDS CHILD, YOU WALK LIKE A PEASANT (2000) {*6}. From its flaky opener, `I Fought In A War’, listeners could detect that this album would pale in comparison to the aforementioned “Arab Strap”. It seemed that, since the band had apparently broken into the mainstream of America, that their sound was becoming more MOR, decidedly tweaked, but less… Stuart Murdoch. With that in mind, the leader did allow other band members to take the artistic reins: Jackson and Campbell sang on more songs than usual, slightly thwarting the ever-impending DRAKE references. It could be just that B&S, like many other artists, followed a pivotal record with one that was weaker. Or maybe the group had simply lost their edge. On the eve of the release for this album they started doing press interviews – something that was frowned upon during their earlier years. It was the final turn of Stuart David, who was replaced by Bobby Kildea; Campbell teamed up with MARK LENEGAN (of SCREAMING TREES) after putting down tracks on B&S’s subsequent venture.
The band duly covered uncharted territory by issuing the album STORYTELLING (2002) {*7}, the “unofficial” soundtrack to the Todd Solondz film of the same name. It eventually got edited so much by the producers that Solondz vowed never to make another movie again. Unfortunately, so was the B&S score, which didn’t make the final cuts. And it’s a shame really, because the group almost redeemed themselves by attempting to create proper film music. `Freak’, `Fuck This Shit’ (with Jackson on harmonica) and the humorously entitled `Black And White Unite’, all made for good soundtrack material. Like so many before them, BELLE AND SEBASTIAN discovered that scoring a film wasn’t all tea and scones. The only truly shameless moment was `Wandering Alone’, where Jackson croons through a knowing ROY ORBISON/CHRIS ISAAK take-off.
Murdoch’s lyrics carve out a leeway far beyond other songwriters, the kind of sorry insight that in a different place and time might’ve come from a haggard chanson de geste. The score subtly admonishes Solondz himself, the winsomely barbed adieu of Isobel Campbell, while `Big John Shaft’ tenderly examines the real-time plight of the film’s lead against a warm, fuzzy funk riff, itself later fleshed out into the wonderful `For The Price Of A Cup Of Tea’ (on “The Life Pursuit” album). A typically ingenuous piano melody conveys the main theme and its variations, immaculate chamber pop which puts the Hollywood score barons to shame. Only six minutes of B&S’s score was actually used in the film (Nathan Larson, formerly of SHUDDER TO THINK was composer of choice), but they rightly released it anyway, as it was conceived, cherry-picked dialogue et al. Isobel, meanwhile, collaborated with celebrated Falkirk-born avant-jazz man, BILL WELLS, on the album, “Ghost Of Yesterday” (a take on the legendary BILLIE HOLIDAY).
Now signed to Rough Trade Records, B&S enlisted pop producer Trevor Horn to ride the faders, and while many thought it was the band committing indie suicide or selling out (more than they had already done), it was a blessing for Murdoch and Co’s camp. DEAR CATASTROPHE WAITRESS (2003) {*8} re-instated BELLE & SEBASTIAN’s indie cred, as well as harnessing new fans to the fore, much in the same way “Boy/Arab Strap” had done five years previously. The songs were mostly uptempo numbers helmed by Murdoch’s keen ear for a good tune, with the band following tightly behind him incognito. Trevor Horn’s production, while far from the nonsense pop of Tatu and ABC, gave the B&S crowd the unthinkable – a straight up, clean and commercially viable record.
Strange, but rather beautiful, the mercurial Murdoch still had the best lyrics in the business and the tunes to back them up: THE LIFE PURSUIT (2006) {*8} served notice that B&S weren’t going to relinquish their official title as the best Scottish band ever (as voted by the great Caledonian public and awarded by The List) any time soon, nor their claim on the Top 10 (the album even edged into the US Top 75). Produced by Tony Hoffer (AIR, BECK, etc.), the record continued to cultivate the bolder airs of its predecessor, flirting with BOLAN-esque stomp, 70s-vintage L.A. soul and early 80s electro-funk (yes, Murdoch as fey funkateer, hear it to believe it…) while never forsaking the parochial charm. The band’s chameleonic frontman proved he could still break hearts with a flourish of that falsetto (`Funny Little Frog’) and slay a crowd with his words (“she didn’t enrol but she wiped the floor with all the arseholes”), while referencing the past with the kind of intelligence and perception that’s way beyond most – if not all – of the competition.
60s-fixated and surrounding himself with a trio of similarly-sophisticates (namely Brittany Stallings, Catherine Ireton and Celia Garcia) and a plethora of studio musicians, Murdoch’s eponymous project set, GOD HELP THE GIRL (2009) {*6}, stuck a nostalgic foot in the past while keeping in touch with the present, everything-retro scene. Almost BACHARACH in its shape and song-structure, this Everything “Belle” The Girl adventure was a tad out of sync for many pundits; the exceptions being `Hiding Neath My Umbrella’, the soulful re-vamp of `Funny Little Frog’, `Perfection As A Hipster’ (with Neil Hannon of The DIVINE COMEDY) and `I Just Want Your Jeans’ (a duet with SMOOSH’s Asya).
Back in the studio with Hoffer, the autumnal BELLE AND SEBASTIAN were back in er… action on album number eight, WRITE ABOUT LOVE (2010) {*7}. Cracking the elusive US Top 20 (Britain Top 10 per usual), the twee-ful band bounced between ballads and Carnaby Street-styled glam, dipping ever so gently into Motown and the 60s for inspiration and passion. If Americans were finally picking up in the ensemble’s chamber-pop, then it’d be through tracks like `I Didn’t See It Coming’, `Calculating Bimbo’, `I Want The World To Stop’ and a song featuring NORAH JONES, `Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John’; the title track presented actress (and future Marcus MUMFORD wife), Carey Mulligan with a dual singing role.
If wishes were white horses, STUART MURDOCH got a second chance to redeem his GOD HELP THE GIRL {*5} movie and soundtrack in the autumn of 2014. Expanded to include brief dialogue snippets and orchestral manoeuvres of theatrical mode, this set (double-set vinyl) was strictly for the B&S brigade.
The troubles of the globe almost forgotten in an irony-riddled, hour-long “comeback” set, GIRLS IN PEACETIME WANT TO DANCE (2015) {*8}, the BELLE AND SEBASTIAN septet strolled back into the pop/rock limelight; and the Top 10. Encompassing everything from continental café folk/jazz (`The Everlasting Muse’) – very PETER SARSTEDT – and fizzy ORANGE JUICE type (`Perfect Couples’), to the PET SHOP BOYS mirror-ball sound of `Enter Sylvia Plath’, `The Party Line’ and `Play For Today’ (the latter a duet with Dee Dee of the DUM DUM GIRLS), B&S had side-stepped from being a typical modern act on the make. Every track an unforgettable sing-a-long, Stuart and Co rifled out happy music for happy people by way of `Nobody’s Empire’, the NICK DRAKE-esque `Allie’ and the emotive `The Cat With The Cream’.
© MC Strong 1999-2008/BG-GRD/LCS // rev-up MCS Jan2013-Jan2015

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